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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: March 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Different Directions

A friend of mine called me from a road trip yesterday to tell me the following story:

She was visiting a friend in San Francisco, a long awaited for, saved up for and precisely planned vacation. She is single, on a tight budget and not used to traveling, but after dreaming about such a vaca for so long, and listening to her friend's nagging about coming west, she decided to challenge herself by just doing it. My friend declared victory over her fears of traveling alone and hopped on a plane and flew toward the Pacific.
She based herself at her old college roommate's sunny apartment near the bay, where she could smell the sea air and watch the fog lift around mid morning. She let herself ramble around, jump on cable cars, buy Ghiradelli chocolate and walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
On the day she called me, she was driving up highway 1 along the coast feeling like she had just discovered a new moon. She was elated. Not, however, just because she was flying up the coast line like the road runner watching miles and miles of ocean and then stopping every now and then to just sit on an occasional rock and stare out at the sea til her eyes hurt, but because of this:

She had intended to head south first thing that morning from San Francisco, out of the city toward 101 South, to meet up with a scheduled tour at the Hearst Castle. She had always wanted to check this place out, and the tour was to be the grand finale to her week of fun. She got up early, situated herself in her red Ford Taurus rental car and headed out.

She drove out of the neighborhood, through the city streets just as the city was waking up and stretching out after a long night's sleep. Unlike New York, San Francisco sleeps. She headed through Golden Gate Park, amazed at the foggy mist all over the trees, distracted by all the white washed buildings, low lying and calm. A mindful city, she was thinking. She drove happily over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the tunnel into the jagged hills of Sausilto, looking back at the thick fog over the city behind her in her rear view mirror. Gorgeous. So different, so far away from her rushed life, her boyfriend troubles. The constant chattering of her own mind, the reviewing her failures. Her frustrations and shortcomings had conceded to the vastness of the San Francisco bay and its loveliness. Even her loneliness had lifted out here. Her extra 20 pounds didn't seem so awful, just something to deal with maybe, some day. By some miracle, the food was not calling her the way it usually did. Even if there is no such thing as a geographic cure for her eating disorder, she told me, she did feel like she was on some kind of temporary leave of agony from all her struggles.

As she was driving, she was watching the signs for Tiburon, San Rafael, Novoto. The scraggly cliffs gave way to rolling hills, she noted the occasional cow and a fogless blue sky bright with early morning California sunshine. Petaluma, Sonoma, Santa Rosa. Hmm. She kept driving. Its the age of GPS, but she did not have one. She had her map, her guide book and her printed google directions. She was almost sorry she had her cell phone. An electronics protest rumbled somewhere inside her and it felt good.

About an hour and a half into the drive, like the sun coming up, she tells me, a slow and growing smile started across her face. The signs that said 101, telling her she was on the right highway, were also trying to tell her something else. She was going north. Very north. Delightfully, steadily and definitely 70 miles in the wrong direction.

With a head scratch, she pulled off at the next exit to grab a coke and a muffin at a pretty little gas station somewhere off the highway. The kid behind the counter said "How you doing today?" To which she replied, "Well, I just drove 70 miles in the wrong direction" To which he smiled lightly, shrugged and said, "Well, guess you can just turn around now and go the other way then." To which she said, feeling just as light, "Yep."

So this was the victory she was calling to tell me about, some 12 hours later. That she missed the tour at the Hearst Castle, that she had driven 70 miles out of her way, that the one thing she had really wanted to do, she did not get to do. But she felt better than she could ever remember. That those 70 miles up through Marin County would stay with her forever, so would that boy behind the counter with his smile and his shrug. It did not get filtered through her usual screen of self attack, sarcasm or despair. Although she had long been working on allowing herself all of her feelings, even, especially, the negative ones, the uncomfortable ones, the outright painful ones, knowing they pass, knowing they too are allowed to live and she can survive them....she did not experience them that morning. No pangs of regret, or anger. No frustration, stupidity, or self name calling. None of the old sneering at the idiot behind the counter or the one in the mirror.

Just immediate, radical acceptance, and then the idea that yes, really, she could just turn around and go the other way.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dancing in the Kitchen ~ Gardening in the Living Room

"Happiness is a form of courage" ~ Holbrooke Jackson

Somehow with the approach of spring, I feel hope coming on. For those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or who walk under the cloak of depression, frustration, or the simmering of anxiety and unrest, spring usually ushers in some relief. Of course its not here just yet, but almost. Sometimes just knowing that something good, something new, something different is on the way, can bring a lift.

So with the most serious respect to the emotional pain I often write about, I think that its well worth it to write also about joy, because even in the midst of deep pain, spontaneous, light hearted, easy going freedom, even if its fleeting, even if its only in a moment, can have great power and meaning. Even if you are wrapped up in a difficult relationship, confusing situation or heart bending problem. Even if you need the pain, or can't imagine it letting up. Because moments add up. Because we can have more than one feeling at once. Because anxiety does not protect us from harm. Keeping joy at a distance doesn't either. Sometimes, in the midst of emotional pain, we can find pockets of freedom.

Here's what I am talking about: A friend of mine who is going through a particularly difficult divorce told me that she was sitting in the kitchen of her neighbor's house recently when the neighbor's child and a friend came skipping in. "Mommy! the little girl says, "you have to hear this song! It rocks!" And with that, the kid puts on the radio, and she and the friend start swinging and dancing and gyrating all around the kitchen. My friend, who was in no mood to move, much less dance, sighs deeply to herself against a wave of self pity and annoyance. And then, to make matters worse, all the sudden the neighbor mom is up dancing too. And the final blow, they grab my friend and before she could get herself out of it, the four of them are holding hands and twirling and bopping around on the ivory ceramic tiles. My friend told me that there were dishes in the sink, papers on the counters and a pot of macaroni on the stove. And here they were, swirling around and bumping into each other, laughing and giggling and woo-hoo-ing in the kitchen.

For a whole and glorious five minutes, my friend forgot she was miserable. She forgot she was terrified. She forgot that she hated herself, that she hated her soon to be ex and she forgot that she had trouble getting up that morning. And she danced around the kitchen. And she told me that she knows that this neighbor mom dances around the kitchen a lot. That her kids expect it. That the dishes can wait and dinner can get interrupted and everyone can join in. That more often than not, there is joy in that kitchen. And for a moment, there was joy in her body. She was free. And it carried her the rest of the day and spilled over into the next.

It did not change her situation, but somehow, it was okay just for what it was, a little lift, a moment of hope and a taste of freedom. It gave her a new idea, one that had not quite taken hold yet, or clarified itself, but like Spring, it was coming. She could feel it.

People who are in pain tell me often that they need something to look forward to. That having pleasure, anticipating pleasure, and then remember pleasure all add up to less suffering. Like air in dry lungs. It helps. And it can be simple. Off the wall even.

One of my friends loves to garden. We start seeds indoors together every year. This year her basement flooded so she moved up the garden table and grow lights to the living room, dirt and all. All those little tomato and pepper seedlings sprouting spring green all over the table mean hope and joy and more to come.

I'm not talking about making lemonade out of lemons. I am talking about being open to letting some fresh air into heavy hearts, letting go just a little of old ideas that don't work and finding things to look forward to. I think we can do this. We can sort through the painful stuff, the puzzling stuff, in the recent and distant past, if we need to. We can be angry and frustrated and hurt and we can still dance in the kitchen and garden in the living room. These too have a place.